Enhancing the Worship Music On and Off the Piano Bench
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat inspires you to play piano for the worship service? What is your mission? If the worship pianist’s mission is to help others worship God through music, then every single note is an opportunity to worship God and to help others to worship God. But how does that thought translate into real-life worship playing? How can we, as worship pianists or keyboardists, work towards enhancing the worship music and avoid being a distraction from the worship music? Increasing our awareness and abilities in the elements of service music, playing technique, and public and private worship can help us grow musically and spiritually in our worship playing as well as helping others have better opportunities to worship God together through music.
1. Service Music.
If you are accompanying a worship song, then a part of your mission is to support the singing. If you can play piano with flare, adding in flourishes or arpeggios to enhance the music, that’s great. But if the congregation cannot sing along well, you may need to save your technical prowess for other times. If your congregation has trouble singing the worship songs, consider incorporating more melody into your playing. This will add support to the singing and help the congregation know what the music sounds like. If the worship band has trouble staying together rhythmically, you might help by putting your emphasis on quarter notes and leaving out more complex rhythms. If you are playing with a worship band, you probably have a bass player, so take it easy on the heavy bass parts to prevent the mix from sounding muddy. If the bass player is out sick, doubling the bass note in octaves can add a strong bottom to the mix. A strong steady beat with good melodic support can go a long way towards helping the congregation feel confidant and sing out no matter what the instrumentation. This gives the congregation a better opportunity to engage in worshipping God.
If you are accompanying a soloist, you may be able to add in some more flare, depending on the soloist’s needs. The soloist may need you to give cue notes, adjust the harmonies, or change the structure of the song. One of the key techniques to accompanying soloists and ensembles is to listen and follow their lead: if they speed up the tempo, so do you. If they change the dynamics, do the same. Increasing your musical sensitivity will help the soloist share the message of their song.
Prayer music is typically quiet, calm, and slow. Stringy keyboard pads or gentle piano arpeggios work nicely for background music. Keep the focus on gentle harmonic changes that support the prayer. Playing too much melody or using strong chord changes (for example, repeating a IV-V7-I structure) can shift the focus from prayer to the music. If prayer time is substantial in length, adjust the pattern, voicing, or chord structure as the prayer changes topics. Playing the same pattern throughout the entire prayer can cause the congregation to feel restless and uneasy rather than peaceful and prayerful.
Appropriate times to challenge yourself to harder pieces might be during the offertory, prelude, or postlude, if your church incorporates those. It’s important to use the talents that God gave us to the best of our ability; however, sometimes playing our best means playing with simplicity, sincerity, and a sensitivity to the plans of the worship leader, the needs of the congregation, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
2. Work on your technique.
Your piano teacher was right – practicing scales really does improve your piano playing. I also love to just grab a hymnbook and practice sight-reading or work at transposing those hymns into other keys. Even if your congregation doesn’t sing many hymns, they are a goldmine of treasures if you want to improve your use of harmonizations, sight reading, and fingering. A few minutes of concentrated effort each day can make a big difference in technique. If you need more ideas, it never hurts to take a few lessons with a professional piano teacher or search YouTube for clips on piano techniques. Find some fresh inspiration in other musical styles or artists and try it out. Challenge yourself to memorize your part to allow you to play more freely during the worship music.
3. Worship in public and private.
Personal worship (prayer, Bible reading, praising God) is critical to connecting with God during times of corporate worship. If you really want to improve your worship playing, spend time alone with God in private worship. Incorporate playing for God when you are all alone – not as practice, but just as worship. Your prep time – when you are practicing, preparing your music, rehearsing with the team, are also acts of worship. Being well-prepared musically, even if you are capable of sighting-reading the music, will help you be able to praise God even more during the worship service. Prep, done well, is an act of worship all by itself even if the work you do never makes it to the service (for example, if the worship leader needs to cut a song at the last minute). If you do these things well, you will be more able to participate in corporate worship in the moment. However, there are always times where the ‘feeling’ of worship might be superseded by the work of the worship service. Corporate worship never has to ‘feel’ spiritual on our end to be an act of worship that ultimately glorifies God. Giving private times of worship top priority in your life will help you feel fulfilled and connected to God through your musical acts of service, your times of preparation and practice, and your corporate worship piano playing.
Amanda is a toddler-chasing, coffee drinking, fashion boot-wearing, Fit-bit addicted, Jesus-loving, wife and mom to 5 small children. She spends her free time absorbed in fashion and tattoos, watching Pirates of the Caribbean, Googling, attempting clean eating, all while spreading autism awareness, encouraging adoption and foster care, championing the underdog, and of course, juicing.
Amanda serves the local church as a licensed American Baptist pastor, free-lance writer, and church musician. She holds a Master of Divinity from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, a Bachelor of Arts in Church Music from Eastern University, and a cosmetology license from Metro Beauty Academy. Her favorite places to be are the local zoo, the church piano bench, Facebook, and anywhere her family is.